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Zel’dovich, Iakov Borisovich

(1914–1987), theoretical physicist, astrophysicist, physical chemist, and member of the USSR Academy of Sciences from 1958. Born in Minsk, Zel’dovich was raised in an educated family: his father was a lawyer and his mother a translator and member of the Writers Union. In May 1931 Zel’dovich was hired as a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Chemical Physics of the USSR Academy of Sciences; he would maintain his ties with this institution for the rest of his life.

While Zel’dovich began his career without a degree, he began studying on his own under the guidance of the Institute’s theoretical physicists. From 1932 to 1934 he was a student in the evening division of the Physics and Mathematics Department of Leningrad State University, but left without obtaining a degree; later, again without completing his studies, he attended lectures at the Physics and Mathematics Department of the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. In 1934 Zel’dovich became a graduate student at the Institute of Chemical Physics, defending his candidate of sciences degree in 1936 and his doctor of sciences degree in 1939. From 1938 he headed a laboratory there.

In August 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Institute was evacuated to Kazan’. During this period Zel’dovich was involved in analyzing processes connected with rocket weaponry, particularly Katyusha rockets.

In 1943 Zel’dovich and his laboratory returned to Moscow. From 1946–1948 he headed the Theoretical Department of the Institute of Chemical Physics; in 1948, he was appointed professor at the Moscow Institute of Engineering and Physics. He became a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1946 and a full member in 1958.

At the end of World War II, Zel’dovich worked with Igor’ Kurchatov on the creation of an atomic bomb, and until 1965 on aspects of defense against nuclear weapons. In 1965, he was named professor at Moscow State University and department chair at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Applied Mathematics, a position he held until 1983, when he took up a department chairmanship at the Moscow Institute of Physical Problems of the Academy of Sciences. In the same year, he became a consultant to the Academy’s Institute of Space Research.

For his scientific work Zel’dovich received four Soviet State Prizes and the Lenin Prize; he was made Hero of Socialist Labor three times and was the recipient of numerous scientific medals.

Awarding Zel’dovich its highest honor, the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal for Lifetime Contributions to Astronomy, in 1983, the venerable Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) summarized his work:

He made significant discoveries and wrote important books on problems of combustion and detonation. He worked on shock waves and gas dynamics and played a significant role in the development of Soviet nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. In the 1950s he turned to nuclear physics and the theory of elementary particles, and in the 1960s to astrophysics and cosmology. He worked on the dynamics of neutron emission during the formation of black holes, the formation of galaxies and clusters, and the large-scale structure of the universe. With Rashid Sunyaev he proposed what is known as the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect, an important method for determining the Hubble constant from the effect of gas in galaxy clusters on the microwave background radiation. He was a pioneer in attempts to relate particle physics to cosmology and to develop a quantum theory of gravity.   ( brucemedalists/zeldovich)

Suggested Reading

V. L. Ginzburg, Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society 40 (1994): 431–441; R. A. Siuniaev and R. A. Sunyaev, Zeldovich: Reminiscences (Boca Raton, Fla., 2004).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson